3 Tools to Stop the Spiral of Self-Recrimination

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This post is adapted from my new book ‘The Power of Self-Kindness: How to Transform Your Relationship With Your Inner Critic,’ which is out now! To find out more and start healing your relationship with your inner critic and yourself, click here.

I’m walking down the street and my thoughts drift to a conversation I had with a friend the evening before, in which I said something that came out awkwardly and not as I had intended. As I think more about the situation, my thoughts start to descend into a doom-and-gloom disaster scenario: She’s going to think you were criticising her, she’s bound to be offended . . . in fact, she’s probably talking to her partner right now about how weird you are and how she doesn’t want to be friends with you anymore!

My inner critic is taking over although I’m so lost in its stories I don’t even realize. Then, another thought rings through, clear as a bell, Oh, come on, this again? You know better than this, you’re just not trying! Didn’t you just read a book about this? What was all that therapy for if you’re still getting stuck on things like this? You need to stop this self-indulgent BS. Grow up! It’s an inner critic pile-on. Not only is my critic taking control of my thoughts about the evening before, but it’s also admonishing me for the fact it exists.

This is the spiral of self-recrimination.

The spiral looks like this: we self-attack, then self-attack for self-attacking, then self-attack for self-attacking our self-attack, then self-attack for self-attacking our self-attack our self-attack . . . and on and on into infinity. This is just another way the inner critic justifies its existence – to turn on itself. Because, if you experience an inner-critic attack, then obviously you need an inner critic to keep you in line and protect you from that in the future, right? That’s inner-critic logic for you.

Here are three tools I've found useful for noticing and stopping the spiral before it becomes a vortex. These tools revolve around gaining emotional distance from your inner critics and recognising that while your inner critics are part of you, they are just one of many different parts. They are not you and they don’t define you or represent you as a whole.

You’ll notice none of these tools try to change what my critics are saying or convince myself to feel differently about them. Instead, they are about witnessing my thoughts and feelings and creating space for self-acceptance in the moment.

1. I Notice . . .

Reframing your critics’ assertions with this (for example, “I notice I’m telling myself everyone is judging me negatively,” or “I notice my inner critic is telling me I’m not good enough” can help you get some much-needed emotional distance from this internal voice. It’s a short and simple phrase, but “I notice” can help you become an observer of your thoughts rather than a participant in them. This is especially the case if you tend to accept what your inner critics say as truth without question.

When I frame what my inner critics say with “I notice . . .” I can practise watching their statements float by without believing them but also without judging them or trying to shut them down. It allows my critics to express themselves, but within a safe container.

2. Ouch!

Saying to yourself “Ouch!” whenever you’re aware of harsh self-talk is a way of acknowledging the impact your critics are having on you without getting caught up in trying to argue with them or prove them wrong. The act of stopping and saying this out loud (or muttering it under your breath) can help snap you out of a critic spiral and creates space for a more constructive and self-compassionate part of your internal dialogue to emerge (such as your inner mentor, whom I talk about more in the book).

I first heard about using this phrase as a way of diffusing tension during arguments, but I’ve found it useful for taking the heat out of what my inner critic is saying and remembering to empathize with myself rather than buy into its stories.

3. In Your Opinion . . .

In the TV show The Good Wife, a recurring judge character insists the defence and prosecution frame their arguments with the phrase, “In my opinion . . .” rather than stating them as facts like they usually do. Any statement of fact is met with the following interruption:

“Is that your opinion?”

“Well, yes . . .”

“Then say. ‘In my opinion’.”

While this is a comic character quirk, it’s also a turn of phrase you can started using with your inner critics (and outer critics – although perhaps just in your head). Framing my critics’ statements with “In your opinion . . .” helps take the heat out of what they are saying and reminds me they are just one of many parts of my internal dialogue. And, like fictional attorneys on TV, just because they have an argument or an opinion doesn’t mean it’s a fact.

As well as gaining emotional distance, you will likely find being able to name and acknowledge your feelings and thoughts brings its own sense of relief. Doing this might not change the thought or feeling but recognizing what’s happening can lessen the intensity of the experience.

How do you halt the spiral of self-recrimination when you notice it's happening? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.